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  • Bautista has been sailing into the wind.And while the players watched, the man in white seemingly signaled the pitches the visiting pitcher was throwing against the Jays, according to four sources in the bullpen that day.He was raising his arms over his head for curveballs, sliders and changeups.In other words, anything besides fastballs.When Bautista next came up to bat, he struck out.After the inning, he ran to right field, adjacent to the visitors ’pen, and the livid player issued Bautista a warning.We know what you’re doing, he said, referring to the man in white, according to the player and two witnesses.Instead of using park factors that compare runs scored by the team at home and on the road, we compare each player’s production at home to his production at every other park in the league.This allows for much more granular comparisons than would otherwise be possible with traditional park factors.Presumably, any assistance the man in white was giving Bautista was being dispensed to the other Blue Jays hitters as well, and none of them experienced the sort of radical change Bautista did.Even if we throw out his home stats altogether, his road stats are impressive enough to tell us that his improvement was not simply a product of his park.And so we are stymied.No one else has come by this sort of improvement honestly, but no one has come by it by cheating, either.If Bautista’s improvement came from a prescription pad, it’s a prescription pad to which only he has access.He’s about as singular a story as any in baseball’s history.We can either accept Dwayne Murphy’s account or disbelieve it, but neither course gives us a satisfactory answer.Every spring training brings countless stories about hitters who have shortened their swings, but none have had even half as much to show for their efforts as Bautista has.We believe that Jose Bautista simply does not exist.Since we can’t conclude the second possibility, we must conclude the first.That isn’t to say that someday we won’t understand what Bautista has done, but we certainly don’t now.If sabermetrics is sadly silent on the subject of Jose Bautista, it doesn’t mean that Bautista has nothing to tell us about sabermetrics.There are two lessons we can learn from his story if we’re willing to be as scrupulous in discussing the craft of studying baseball as we are in discussing the people who play it.First, we can remember to keep ourselves from becoming fixated on outliers when it comes to predicting future performance.Was it a good deal for Toronto?You have a player with an extremely spotty track record of performance and playing time who has one wildly outlying breakout year.I mean, it’s not like Jose Bautista is 24 or 25 and just kind of emerged as a hitter.He’s way past that point.The history of those guys is very poor.He’s extremely unlikely to maintain that level of production.In the long run, you end up doing much better as a prognosticator if you don’t predict things that are extremely unlikely and do predict things that are extremely likely.Of course, things that happen rarely do happen sometimes.While any one rare event is, by definition, unusual, it is actually common for some rare events to occur.Predicting which one it will be is nearly impossible, even if the event somehow seems stunningly obvious in hindsight.This is valid in a vacuum, but looking at the broader picture it ignores that any system that expected Bautista to do what he did in 2011 would have performed poorly for the vast majority of players who, after a significant improvement, fail to put up similarly improved numbers the following season.In exchange for getting rid of one false negative, you add many more false positives.This doesn’t always have to apply to just a hot season.It can apply equally well to a hitter who’s gotten off to a hot start.The second thing we can learn, if we attend carefully, is the limit of our knowledge.As you may recall from the introduction, Fox’s Ken Rosenthal has railed against what he viewed as reflexive regurgitation of stats in voting for postseason awards.There’s a stat for nearly every action in baseball.Little is left to the imagination.Sports, like art, are supposed to be interpreted.It’s difficult to interpret baseball these days.The stat geeks won’t let you argue.They quote sabermetrics and end all discussion.The sabermeticians will punch in the numbers and give you, in their mind, a definitive answer.It’s ruining sports.Sabermetrics may be ruining the ability of gasbags like Whitlock to proffer their arguments with no support but the volume of their own voices, but it’s not ruining sports, and it certainly isn’t capable of ending all discussion.It tells us how runs and wins relate to each other, and how everything else in baseball we can measure relates to those things.More to the point, what sabermetrics does is ground us in reality.Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own evidence.Reflexive regurgitation happens, not only with advanced metrics, but with the more traditional ones as well.It’s far from a tenet of sabermetrics that it should be so.Sabermetrics has, from the beginning, been about the idea that things should be questioned, that nothing is sacred.If everyone believed in reflexive regurgitation, there wouldn’t be any sabermetrics.Sabermetrics cannot definitively answer the question of how Jose Bautista became Jose Bautista.This is a triumph, not a failure, of sabermetrics.Baseball before Bill James was filled with people who had definitive answers to a whole lot of questions that they didn’t know the answers to.James’s most important role was as the man who would challenge their answers and do his own digging.It would be a pity if his children, so to speak, were to become the kinds of people James tried to sweep away, the kinds of people they are in Rosenthal’s and Whitlock’s imaginations.In Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver pointed out that unexplained changes in performance are the norm, not the exception.When Does a Hot Start Become Real?There was good reason for this sort of skepticism.The team had been mediocre for years, and had done little to improve itself in the offseason.On the offensive side, a changing of the guard was taking place.Yes, they were all top prospects at one time or another, but top prospects have a much higher failure rate than most realize.Conversely, players who were expected to contribute did not.Johnson was lost for the season after just 10 starts.Quentin spent much of the year on the disabled list.Additionally, the D’backs outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a substantial 11 wins.Some of this was good managing, including excellent leveraging of the bullpen, but perhaps more was simply the good luck that sometimes elevates average ballclubs into good ones for no discernible reason.At what point was skepticism no longer justified?Sure, a .700 winning percentage after a team’s first 10 games is great, but is that enough to say that they’re for real?If not, how many games is enough?Do we have to wait until months of games are played before we can really say that a team is legitimate?Since Jazayerli has done a fine job of it already, I’m not going to cover ground that’s already been trodden, instead approaching the topic from a different angle.We will return to Jazayerli’s results shortly.Real can be an amorphous concept, especially to those using heavy pharmaceuticals, so we should define what we mean.Anything can happen in a single game, so after the first game of the year, we’re going to be much better off simply assuming that the team will finish 81–81 than trying to pass judgment based on a single victory or defeat.After 161 games, however, we’re going to be able to predict a team’s final record very well, since there is just one more game left to be played.The higher the number, the stronger the relationship.Famed baseball analyst Bill James once commented on a phenomenon he dubbed the whirlpool principle, wherein all teams are drawn forcefully toward the center.The more games that get played, naturally, the more important actual performance becomes and the more accurate our projection becomes.That’s closer to their actual .556 record than our estimate after five games, but it’s still pretty far off..625 × 50% + .500 × 50% = .563While a hot start obviously becomes more real with every successive game, by at least one definition, a hot start becomes real after 16 games.After all, a team like the Yankees that wins 95 games in one season is very unlikely to win 70 the next, even if it gets off to a rough start, so to form a basic preseason expectation for a team, we’ll use its performance over the past few seasons.Obviously a team’s record from last year is going to be more significant than its record from two years ago, so we should account for this as well.I initially used a team’s past four seasons, but the fourth season ended up not being significant, making our optimal number three.5 percentFor 2007, the Diamondbacks had won 51, 77, and 76 games from 2004 to 2006, giving them a preseason expectation of 77 wins.From here, all we need to do is find out how well a team’s preseason expectation predicts its actual performance.Using a Pearson correlation, we get an R of 0.52 when we do this.Notice anything about that number?If the team is expected to be good in the preseason, it’s more likely to get off to a hot start.All told, this leaves us with three different points from which to measure a hot start.Which method is preferable depends on the point of the season and what kind of team is being evaluated.The first method is likely best suited to a team that has undergone a major overhaul in the offseason.The 2007 Diamondbacks are one example of a team’s hot start being legitimate.There are plenty of other such examples throughout baseball history.In fact, the 2011 Diamondbacks are actually another such example.Of course, we need to remember that we’re dealing with probability, not certainty.In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays came into the season having won 66, 61, and 67 games the previous three years and opened the season with just seven wins in their first 17 games.While our formula would have predicted just 74 wins, the team managed to go on a tear to ultimately finish the season with 97 wins.Come October, however, the team had secured 91 wins and their first playoff appearance in 15 years.At the end of April, players, coaches, and the media like to say that there’s still a lot of baseball left to be played.While of course this is true, believe it or not, by the end of April we are actually capable of making a very good guess as to how a team will ultimately finish.What Is the Effect of the Increase in Strikeouts?Toss the unfortunate amphibian into a pot of boiling water and he’ll jump out of it.Put him in a pot of water and then slowly raise the temperature to boiling, however, and he’ll stick around until he’s cooked.Like most parables, it’s something you hope people haven’t put to the test in the laboratory.Beyond conjuring up ingenious methods of amphibicide, one of the underlying messages of this particular story is that, if you don’t pay attention, a massive change in your environment might be happening.You can see where environmentalists get all worked up about it, but our purpose here is a wee bit more esoteric.It’s time to talk about one of the most fundamental changes to the game today, something that has slowly crept up on us, and perhaps on the game as a whole.That’s a 25 percent drop, where a quarter of runs scored for every team just went away.

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